Friday, March 23, 2012
Epic fantasy has traditionally tended to be a conservative genre at its heart. The overall goal of the quest to save the world is generally to preserve the status quo, not to create fundamental change for the better of people and their society. It’s typically a pretty standard hero, often of modest, rural (and therefore generally conservative) origins who saves the day and ascends to the role of the next monarch. And while this is perhaps changing the most, the hero is also quite often a young, good-looking white male.
Epic fantasy of the last ten years or so often seeks to subvert many of the tropes I just mentioned. Heroes are grey, often not quite so heroic. The worlds and people within them are often now ‘gritty’, darker and more dangerous. The term ‘realistic’ often comes about, regardless of just how absurd the concept of reality is to whatever the term graces. Perhaps some change is sought, or maybe the good guys don’t win, or maybe the world is set in a place where the bad guy has already won, or just maybe no real victory is won at all. But with the Acacia Trilogy David Anthony Durham goes in a different direction. Real, fundamental change occurs. Realization of the evils that the rule of the ‘good guys’ inflict is a key component. Class divisions, drugs, slavery, political elite, political movers and shakers, the corruption of power and magic, invading barbarians, ethnic tensions, and real ethical concerns dominate both the words of the trilogy and what’s written between those words. And there is actual discussion of whether outright slaughter/genocide of the ‘bad guys’ should be the goal.
However, the politics and ethics that I describe above are integrated seamlessly into the plot that drives the trilogy. They are often fairly subtle and things are never didactic. The trilogy is still epic fantasy – there are cool beasts and monsters, there are dragons (of sorts), there is magic, there are vast armies that meet in battle and single combat between champions. Acacia embraces many of the essential elements of epic fantasy, only through a different moral and ethical lens.
The trilogy follows a group of four brothers and sisters from childhood to adulthood and (in some cases) to death. The Akarans are the children of the King of the Known Lands and are the latest in a long ruling dynasty from the island and ethnic group of Acacia. The Akaran dynasty rules over what is essentially an empire of many subjected small nations and the reader soon learns that they rule through very disturbing means. Selected children of the population are sold into slavery in a distant and unknown land in exchange for a drug that the ruling elite use to mollify the population. After the initial set-up and introduction to the Akaran children, we follow them as they grow, as Akaran rule is usurped and regained, as magic is rediscovered and as people from the distant Other Lands invade and the world grows larger.
The series begins with Acacia: The War With the Mein (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound, my review) and something of a slow start. Durham’s roots as a writer lie in literary and historical fiction rather than SFF and he shows some of his naivety as he embraces tropes that often feel far too close to other epic fantasy works. Some of his characters come across as too great and achieve the status of Mary/Gary Sue. And Durham’s distinctive writing style is just a bit different than much of what is more common in the epic fantasy world – it’s not that it’s a hard style to read, just one that takes some adjustment. However, by the end of The War With the Mein, Durham finds his stride and the series quickly evolves into one of the most important epic fantasy series to be published in years.
The second, The Other Lands (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound, my review), and third, The Sacred Band (Book Depository, Powell’sBooks, Indiebound, my review), books are each better than what comes before. The series evolves in scope as it moves beyond the Known Lands and implications become even greater as the moral and ethical challenges grow in importance through in time. And, the series has another triumph to boast about – a great ending. All too often the end of a series just doesn’t work as well as the build-up would imply. While I can see a case for disagreeing with me, I think that Durham pulled off the ending in a near-perfect fashion. The ending is idealistic – the good guys win, though not necessarily survive. Hope for the future is real. Systemic societal problems actually seem to be solved. I think many may complain that the ending is too neat and pretty, too unrealistic. But I think this is the point – Durham wants to show what a progressive message in epic fantasy can look like. Not the conservative, nostalgic end so common and not a cynical response to that conservatism. He presents a truly progressive move forward rather than backward or a simple reestablishment of a status quo – a vision of hope that could translate into our own lives and society.
Durham’s Acacia Trilogy provides an encouraging departure from both the traditionally conservative fantasy and the increasingly common cynical response. Durham presents an epic fantasy that is hopeful and progressive – I would even consider the use of the word liberal if it weren't so politically tainted these days. In doing so, he never loses site of the goal to write an engaging story that fans of epic fantasy can embrace. Acacia is one of the most exciting and important fantasy series that’s been published in the last 10 years, and it’s a shame that more aren’t reading it.